How light is your lunch? You might be surprised…

by , Senior Advocate Consumer Rights 17 May 2012
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How healthy is your sandwich? We’ve found the answer could depend on where you shop. We want to take your views to the government so it can encourage shops to be clearer about what’s in our food.

sandwich

Whether your favourite sarnie is a BLT, a chicken salad or something completely different you may be able to get a healthier version of your preferred lunchtime snack if you shop around.

Research we released today found you could be eating three times as much fat and double the amount of salt as you’d have in the same sandwich bought elsewhere.

So how do you know what you’re eating? Well that’s just it – unless all the places where you buy your sandwiches use the same traffic light labelling scheme it could be very difficult to tell.

Double the fat for the same sandwich?

Although I’m a vegetarian, I was shocked to find out that Morrisons chicken salad sandwich contains almost double the amount of fat (11.7g) than the same sandwich from Waitrose (6.0g).

Waitrose uses traffic lights but Morrisons doesn’t, so how could you tell that the Morrisons sandwich is the less healthy option? It would take quite a bit of planning, calculating and note writing to work it out. As much as I always prefer to go for the healthy option, I just don’t have the spare time for that.

We’ve discussed the use of traffic light labels before on Which? Convo. Andy told us that:

‘I religiously now examine saturated fat and salt content but would love a traffic light system so I wouldnt waste time examining the labels of foods with big red blobs on them.’

Stevie B pointed out that colour-coded things would be easier for those who have problems reading the very small print:

‘The traffic light method is good for me, as reading small print is tough without glasses these days. Easy to read labels allows a more informed choice and the easier the better for me.’

Help us lobby for better labelling

image of traffic light labelling for food

At Which? we’d like to see clear, consistent labelling right on the front of food packaging.

Do you think a system of traffic lights, like the one on the left, would help you make healthier choices?

The Department of Health wants to know – it released a consultation on Monday to help decide on the best scheme. We’ll be responding and would like to include your views as well – it’s important that consumers have their say on food labelling.

  • Would a traffic light scheme that was the same across all packaging help you make healthier choices?
  • What products would you like to see traffic lights on?
  • Would you find it useful to see ‘high’, ‘medium’ and ‘low’ on the traffic lights as well as the colours?

We’ll be talking to the Department of Health so that it can take your feedback on board. Together we can help the government work out how food labelling can work best for those buying the sandwiches.

55 comments

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wavechange

Please help us get rid of mayonnaise from sandwiches, Rachel. Some do want this slimy, ghastly grease but others hate it with a passion. Mayonnaise and coleslaw (mayo plus cabbage) contribute to the fat content of many sandwiches.

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John Symons

Buy your sandwiches from Sainsburys and you always know where you are. Mayo free ones are clearly marked No Mayo. I wish, though, that they would not assume that certain fillings only go with wholemeal bread, others only with oatmeal bread and still others only with white bread. More choice, please. That reminds me, what about a percentage of fibre on food labels? Different people’s systems react to fibre in different ways

Hi Wavechange. It’s true that Mayonnaise can be high in fat but it’s not always the case. Some of the sandwiches we tested contained mayonnaise but were not high in fat. If sandwiches had traffic lights you would easily be able to see if the ones that contained mayonnaise were also high in fat. If you want to know a bit more about the fat content of the sandwiches we tested, you can see our more detailed report here: http://www.which.co.uk/documents/pdf/sandwiches-unwrapped-which-briefing-286242.pdf.

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wavechange

Thanks. I fully support better and more consistent labelling. I appreciate that low fat mayo is available, but the high fat content of most sandwiches suggests that the full fat version is commonly used.

It would be good to see more use of wholemeal bread in supermarket sandwiches, less salt and anything else that can make them a more healthy option.

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vanessa

but if is low fat mayanaise they put in more sugar so either way its not the healthest option

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David

Yes, please help us get rid of mayonnaise from sandwiches. Apart from the obvious potential for high fat content, I’m allergic to egg, and as such at times it can be very difficult for me even finding a sandwich I can eat.

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wavechange

I f you have a serious egg allergy I suggest you make your own sandwiches. So many sandwiches do contain mayonnaise that contamination is likely, even if egg is not listed on the packaging.

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Dyfnwal

I also have a mild allergy to eggs, and cannot abide mayonnaise. There must be many other types of filling that could be used as an alternative. I understand that historically, goose/duck fat would be mixed with lemon juice and parsley to be used as a filling. Most of the people who have arrived on these shores throughout history have left their mark on our cuisine. Perhaps as consumers we should lobby the supermarkets to use new recipes or old ones that are still popular with some people. Thw supermarkets could hold a competition for the best sandwich recipes.

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Nikki Whiteman

I love mayo in sandwiches, although we’ve debated this before on Which? Convo and it seems like a lot of people hate having it: http://conversation.which.co.uk/consumer-rights/say-no-to-mayonnaise-sandwiches/

I think one of the benefits of having traffic light labels is that it will really show people what’s in their sandwiches. Although I like mayo, I’d rather have a low-fat option, and I suspect that if shops have to have really prominent red, amber and green lights on packaging they’ll start thinking more about what goes into the sandwiches – full fat mayo, salt, etc.

What do you guys think about labelling? Is there anything else that you think could benefit from having clearer fat/sugar/salt marked? I’d like to see more of it on ready meals (which I do eat quite a bit). OK, you can pick a ‘light’ option, but how light exactly *is* it? I’d really like to be told this.

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David

I am seriously allergic to egg and generally do make my own lunch. Life dictates this is not always practical however.

Back to the food labelling, I would like to see something akin to your example above (the traffic light system) showing percentage of GDA. This is clear and simple, and would give me a rough indication of how much of my daily allowance I am eating with that one product. I would be in favour of ALL foodstuffs containing such information.

I found out by accident recently that curry powder, of all ingredients, contains salt. The particular one I’ve been using (a well known herb and spice brand) doesn’t indicate how much. As a result I will start grinding my own, without salt.

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William

Is it possible to look at the names/brand names these shops give their food as well. Often the names will imply a healthy option when inspection of the contents would indicate not.

e.g words like Lite , Healthy etc.

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Nikki Whiteman

Good point, William – we do look at these sorts of claims as well. Here’s a Convo we wrote a few months ago on these ‘light’ claims: http://conversation.which.co.uk/consumer-rights/light-food-calorie-content-confusion/ You’re right – it is really important that the information given is clear, and doesn’t imply that something is healthy when it isn’t. Often the definition is relative e.g. one product might be a ‘light’ version of another, yet still be quite high in fat!

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John Symons

I was once amazed to see a packet of clearly factory baked biscuits in Denmark labelled as home made. False claims are even made in Scandinavia

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VfM

It’s generally more cost-effective and healthier to make your own sandwich, or take some fruit with you if you’re short of time in the mornings. If you have the time to queue for a sandwich, you’ve got time to buy some fruit!

There are huge threads on other sites regarding healthy lunch options. Surely Which? should be concentrating on helping consumers save money rather than the dietary aspects of lunch? Eg £2.50 not spent on a sandwich at work equates to a saving of at least £600 pa.

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Aidan

I’d also like a warning on the front with the traffic light system to highlight if there are any trans fats in the product.

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John Symons

Another issue with fats is that claims of high omega fat content should separate out omega-3 and omega-6. Omega-3 is important for brain function and our diets are generally too low in omega-3 as typically found in fish and too high in omega-6 as typically found in nuts. The same goes for omega oil supplement capsules

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Paul

I can’t agree more about the removal of mayonnaise from sandwiches. It is something I have felt very strongly about for some time. It seems that every sandwich these days has to be filled with it. I recently bought a Cheese and Tomato sandwich and found it full of mayonnaise!!! And why does “savoury” mean mixed with onions and mayonnaise.
I think it’s used by sandwich makers as a glue for their fillings.

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Jim Winship

I’m sorry to say your research is somewhat flawed as you can’t really make this sort of nutritional comparison as the types, quality and quantities of ingredients used can differ enormously between brands. For example, a small difference in the quanity of leaf in a BLT can substantially change the nutritional values.

You also attack Greggs, Pret a Manger etc for not labelling yet for them to do so could expose them to charges of misrepresentation as their sandwiches are hand-made and, therefore, may differ in nutritional values simply because an operative is more generous than another with the filling. There is no legal requirement for them to label for this reason although all those quoted do provide guidance nutritional information at point of purchase and on websites etc.

I am also confounded that you had to dig back to 1995 for the consumer attitudes you quoted – if you were to look at the consumer data for the current time I think you would find attitudes have changed a bit, particularly in the current economic climate.

What concerns me is that this piece of work seems to have been inspired by a desire to make headlines and sell more copies of Which? rather than anything else. This does nothing for the integrity of the Consumers Assocation.

I’m sure you will see this as a biased response given that I am Director of the British Sandwich Association but we would support you in encouraging clearer and better labelling. However, we feel it should be done based on more accurate information and by trying to find solutions to the obstacles that make it so difficult for foodservice outlets to give reliable information to consumers on these things.

We have responded to your report in more detail on our website.

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wavechange

I accept that it is difficult to give accurate nutritional information on hand-made products and I nearly made this comment myself. I do not see this as a reason for doing nothing. Perhaps ranges could be given to provide useful information while acknowledging the variation in composition. It would be fairly obvious, for example, that a sandwich containing 20-30% fat would not be a healthy choice.

The only reason that Which? is being critical is that action is needed to help the consumer and this has not been forthcoming.

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tim

It’s a good idea to standardise information, so that one can make comparisons. But is it really necessary that providing information should be compulsory? Providing such information is not cost-free, and not everyone is interested (any figures?). Why not leave it to the market to see if people prefer to buy labelled sandwiches? I see however that the EU has made this labelling compulsory. I despair! (Maybe they could sort out the Euro first?)

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Kat

I find choosing lunch a massive chore as it is – these salty fatty sandwiches to not whet my appetite – but I do spend twice as long in my local Tescos than Sainsburys trying to work out the damn labels! The fact they use ‘random pastel colours’ does not help at all. I bought lunch from Tesco, the amount of salt was ‘orange’ so I thought, not too bad – but no! it had half my daily recc of 6g in it and should have been a red traffic light! The ‘orange’ colour was a RED herring!!!!

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VfM

If choosing lunch is such a chore, why not plan when you shop for groceries? Providing your own means your personal tastes are always accomodated.

IMO buying a pre-made sandwich is just a tax on the stupid, I really think Which? should not be wasting it’s resources on such non-issues when there are plenty of financial and consumer matters out there that require robust challenge.

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Nikki Whiteman

Hi Vfm – I would love to have home made sandwiches every day, but unfortunately I just don’t have the time to make a packed lunch before I leave for work every morning. Buying sandwiches (even if it costs me more) seems like a very good trade-off for me, in having more time to do other things in the morning.

Regarding the Which? research – we research and campaign on a vast array of consumer issues – we aren’t simply a financial charity. We research to find out what it is consumers care about, and where we can make a real difference, and that helps to shape our campaigns. Our food campaign is all about giving consumers the right information about their food – unit pricing, traffic light labelling, etc. Over the years, Which? has campaigned on things from credit card surcharges to car seat safety, and at the moment we’re working on simpler energy tariffs, food traffic light labelling, a stronger financial services bill, and much more!

I appreciate that this particular campaign might not be one that you personally are interested in – you might be more interested in our finance campaigns (more detail here: http://www.which.co.uk/campaigns/personal-finance/).

Hi Kat – the Tesco colours don’t correspond to the fat, sugar, salt levels at all. They correspond to the different nutrients e.g. red for sugar, yellow for salt etc. You have to use the amounts (e.g. 10g) or Guideline Daily Amount (GDA) percentages to work out whether the levels are high medium or low. So it can be tricky and confusing – that’s why we want a simple and consistent system.

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Chris B

I agree – I find it much harder to make use of Tesco nutritional labelling. I find it easy to make use of Co-Op labelling, and find Sainsburys somewhere in between.

Some people are wondering why we have looked at sandwiches in this way. Our consumer surveys show that food and health is a very important issue for people and the government have recently released a consultation on the sort of labelling we should have on the front of food packages to help people make healthier choices, which we will be responding to. This is because there is EU legislation on this (as tim rightly points out) and we are looking at the best ways to implement this in the UK. The EU legislation will not be reviewed for at least another 5 years so we can not change it at the moment, but the government can recommend what system they think food companies should use on the front of food packaging to help people make healthier choices. We thought sandwiches would be an interesting way to highlight this issues as so many people eat them!

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Rica

I think the traffic light idea is a very good one. Most people rush into a supermarket and grab a sandwich and a drink for their lunch and if the sandwich is going to be labelled I think it should be as simple as possible. Presumably, the drink should be labelled as well because i think most of them are very high in sugar.

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Linloobyloo

All our foods should be labelled with colour traffic light codes and especially take aways.

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Philippa

I find it hard as a vegetarian to find low fat sandwhiches; my stomach can’t tolerate mayo or cheese. Egg and salad without mayo would be fine, but I have only found that on the continent (though when I worked on a buffet at Heathrow in 1957 we made plain egg sandwiches then…)

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Linda

It’s a great idea to have standardised information but people who are colour blind find some colours hard or impossible to identify and green is a no no.

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wavechange

Excellent point. Different colours could be shown in different shapes so that everyone can understand the information. Maybe you have a better suggestion.

I’m sure it’s not deliberate but you do need to keep reminding us of the needs of people who are colour blind. We have not even got to grip with the fact that some are left-handed.

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Nikki Whiteman

Very good point, Linda! In fact that picture we first had on the convo just showed the colours but we would ideally like it to also be labelled ‘low’, ‘medium’ or ‘high’ so that people who are colour blind can also see the difference. We’ve managed to find an image that includes these so I’ve swapped the pictures over – if we’re going to add these labels then it’s well worth making sure that as many people can benefit from them as possible.

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Dave Buckingham

Excellent result ‘Which?’ I used to buy sandwiches from various retail outlets until I started to read the ‘ugly truth re the contents’ ! I have actually written to the retailers you mention that do not use the traffic light system and consistently use more than the recommended daily intakes of salt and fat. Would you believe it, not one of them responded even after a second letter. So, they have lost my business entirely, I don’t even use them for every day shopping now. I make my own sandwiches and have even got to like them !. Keep the good work up Which? team.

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wavechange

Very sensible, Dave. After looking at the British Sandwich Association’s website I have decided to stop being lazy and start making sandwiches, which I always did until a couple of years ago.

Thanks for your feedback Dave and good work for contacting those retailers. It’s a shame but also interesting that you have not had a response from the people you have contacted. If you do then please let us know.

Just responding to Linda’s point – one of things that we are asking for in addition to the traffic lights is for the words ‘high’, ‘medium’ and ‘low’ so that those who can not see the colours clear can refer to the text. We have changed the label example above to show what this might look like. I also think the idea to have shapes is a very good one.

With regard to the research Jim mentioned, it was a survey of 1995 people carried out in February 2012. It was not research carried out in 1995 – we always use recent research in our reports!

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wavechange

From the Food Standards Agency website:
General food labelling policy in England has transferred from the Food Standards Agency to the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra). In England, the Agency still has responsibility for food safety-related labelling issues (for example allergen labelling and ‘use by’ dates), while nutrition labelling is the responsibility of the Department of Health, and Defra is responsible for all other labelling policy.

The Agency is still responsible for all labelling and standards policy in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.

Perhaps the FSA and Defra should get together and sort out one system that we can all understand and make good use of, taking into account the fact that food prepared on the premises can vary in composition and amount, and that some of the population are colour blind and find colour coding difficult to interpret.

If our quangos can’t cope with this exercise then perhaps a class of intelligent schoolkids could manage to do a good job.

Hi Wavechange – thanks for this. The traffic light labelling issue currently sits with the Department of Health and they launched a consultation on Monday (http://www.dh.gov.uk/health/2012/05/food-labelling-consultation-launched/).

Like you, we want the Department of Health to come up with a single system and we want that system to be traffic lights as it has been proven to work through independent research and some companies are already using it. We want them to follow the leaders!

Feel free to respond to the consultation as it is open to anyone. The more people they hear from the better!

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wavechange

Thanks for the reminder about the consultation, Rachel.

I used to be happy with the Tesco system but I now see the reasons for what Which? is promoting.

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Malc.Moore

I dont know about sandwiches perhaps they are better in Aldi or Lidl?.Aldi&Lidl beat ASDA regarding amout of fish per portion Frozern.If i was buying a Chicken of Beef Sandwich id want to know the percentage of Chicken or Beef in it Clearly labeled on the Front of the Product not in microlabelling at the back its outragous food manufacters are allowed to get away with this. Labelling food needs to be
Clear and put an end to micro Labelling is a must.

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Paddy Murphy

I never buy sandwiches from supermarkets or petrol stations because the selection of the white bread variety is so poor. Brown bread tastes like minced cardboard and often gives me indigestion

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Eileen

Which please campaign for traffic lights on food packaging as it’s clearer to see straight away if one did not bring their reading glasses .

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Eileen

Food that contain PALM oil should not be marked as vegetable oil.Palm oil is full of saturates whereas rape seed oil does not.I will never buy anything with Palm oil but I suspect sometimes it comes under the disguise of vegetable oil.Palm oil not only contains full of saturates but palm oil has destroyed the rain forest and the orang utans.I think Marks and Spencer s own food does not contain palm oil but not 100% sure.

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Malc.Moore

I agree Eileen i aways try to read the Percentage of fats with very small Labeling one almost needs a microscope to read it never mind Reading glasses hence i call it Microscopic Labeling its so small i expect most just have a glance cannot read it then either buy it or put it back.Yesterday i dicovered Aldi sell Frozern Fish Athough a smaller weight Cod/Haddock containing 87% Fish as i dont use Marks&spencer i cannot compare but it Certainly beats ASDA only offering Youngs miserly 50%.I wonder just how many would buy that brand if they actually knew they were getting only half a packet of fish.I suspect many would walk away and not buy it.The public are conned by glossy photopackaging.If manufacturers spent less on the packages they could afford to increase the percentage of Fish in the product.This applies to all foods not just fish if iwas buying a sandwich id want to know how much Beef/Chicken/Turkey is in it.

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tim

If extensive information about the contents is compulsory, you must either make the print smaller or the packaging larger…

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Deirdre

As a graphic artist there are many ways of using larger typefaces if the brand logos &/or names of the product are made just a little smaller.
I would like to see traffic lights for every product.
I would also like to have even less salt and sugar especially in the breads used. (I usually find Waitrose’ sandwiches god but found a prawn ‘mayo’ in very sweet bread not too good) I would also like to see a choice of bread for every filling, (difficult I know).
I had a nasty experience in buying cocktail sausages from Tescos on a hurry. When I tried one it tasted like pure grease and turned out to have NO MEAT in it only ‘pork fat’. I no longer buy food from Tescos unless in an emergency then with great care!

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Malc.Moore

Deirdre this is why i say whatever food product you are buying from a supermarket or store you should know via the Label what Percentage of the product is that you are buying it should say e.g. 50%Beef/ Fish/ Chicken/Turkey/Other.Sandwich;Tin;Frozen Food.

There seems to be some talk about the percentage of meat in the meat products people buy. You might be interested in this conversation http://conversation.which.co.uk/consumer-rights/lamb-curry-takeaway-food-trading-standards/.

On another note, Deirdre mentioned food companies just using less salt and sugar. One interesting result of traffic light labelling is that it encourages companies to reformulate their products to make them healthier so that they do not have red traffic lights. A good result for everyone!

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Malc.Moore

I cannot agree Rachel % of the Product you wish to buy should be as clear as THE FAT Content same Label Simple Large enough to Read.e.g.A Cheese Sandwich i would think customers want to know how much Cheese is in the Sandwich.If you get 25%Cheese at Sainsbury but only 20%
at Tesco which one would you buy?????????.

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Toby

I think the traffic light system is great, especially when high/med/low are also added. The only reason it’s not law is down to lobbying from food groups who don’t want consumers to know what they’re eating.

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Toby

‘Each portion’ is too vague, as it allows manufacturers to get away with pretending that a ready meal or can of soup is for two people and dividing all the numbers in half, when it’s clear that a normal person will eat the whole thing themselves.
Of course some items really are for multiple people (eg a huge ‘family’ pie).
My suggestion would be that if a container is for multiple people, then TWO traffic lights should be on the front. One labelled ‘This packet’ or similar and the other ‘Each portion’.

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Toby

I’ve just realised that I don’t know if the colours and high/med/low refer to the total amount consumed, or the per 100g value. If it’s per 100g, then the colours wouldn’t change between the ‘Whole packet’ and ‘Each portion’ traffic lights, although the values would.

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Toby

Some people want to compare foods on their composition per 100g. I’m not sure another traffic light is appropriate in this case, but the values should be on the front of the packet!

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Toby

Here’s a direct link to the consultation questionnaire:
http://consultations.dh.gov.uk/food-information-and-promotions/fopnutritionlabelling/consultation/intro/view

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ruth115

Traffic light system works and is easy to read and base comparison decisions on.
Most of the time I’m comparing a range of similar products side by side so whether its based on 100g or whatever makes no difference. Portion or serving size is meaningless.
the food companies are not keen on the traffic lights becasue it works.
The pastel coloured % signage as used by tescos I cannot make head or tail of!

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Malc.Moore

Traffic light labeling yesterday i bought a few tins of Hot Chilli Con Carne from Aldi i never read the Label properly.As normal cals;sugar;fat;;sats;salt Underneath in very small print amounts 1/2 can (Aprox200g)Approx % guideline daily amount Brand name Fiesta.Then i read Ingredients on the back to my Horror only 8%beef in a 400gram Can.priced £1.00.Con certainly is the correct word. When i buy i expect to read on the Traffic light Label for the whole product not half.So these products will be returned and a Complaint made by letter Aldi Website does NOT have Customer feedback.This product is only equal to ASDA Smart Price c.con carne at 54p.While in Asda i noticed very few Ladies reading the boxs of Frozern Fish they were just throw em into the Trolley i wonder how many realise they only get half a box of fish?????.

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